Book Review: No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy… Man, does the guy know how to tell a story. I was pretty impressed with his bleak representation of the apocalypse in The Road, but I think No Country for Old Men might be even better. It’s similarly bleak and similarly difficult to read to begin with – who needs speech marks? – but once you get into it, it’s difficult to get out.

At its core, the plot of No Country for Old Men is pretty simple; Llewelyn Moss, a mostly normal guy, decides to take some money that belongs to some very dangerous people, and, as a result, gets an incredibly ruthless murderer on his tail. A game of cat and Moss (ha!) plays out across the country while Ed Bell, a sheriff close to retirement, tries to find Llewelyn before anyone else does.

McCarthy rarely strays from the cat and mouse plot, and the novel is mainly impressive due to how well he tells it. No Country for Old Men demonstrates that a great story doesn’t need a big complicated plot, and in fact a simple one told well is frequently more powerful. The characters are fleshed out through small moments, and McCarthy avoids exposition whenever necessary.

For example, Chigurh, the man hunting down Llewelyn, has no past as far as the novel is concerned. McCarthy doesn’t try to explain the monster he’s created by giving him a traumatic backstory or anything – he’s just a ruthless killer. While this may suggest that he’s a pretty two-dimensional character, he really isn’t… Chigurh remains a mystery throughout the novel, following his own codes – sometimes flipping a coin to decide whether he should kill someone or not – but that’s what makes him so compelling. The same with Llewelyn. Why he becomes so committed to getting away with the money is left up to the reader. McCarthy understands that some things we do, and some of the ways we act, can’t really be explained. Too many stories are afraid to leave the reader in the dark a little bit.

And as the characters feel real, so does the way that the plot plays out. I won’t spoil anything, but No Country for Old Men is fantastic in the way that it just shuns narrative conventions. It doesn’t really have a three-act structure as such, and at times there’s not really a clear protagonist. These characters feel like real people reacting to things in the same way that real people would, and as a result it rarely feels like the author is manipulating them to create a particular situation or moment. Everything plays out realistically and still manages to remain interesting.

A common complaint about McCarthy is his minimalistic writing style, and I’ll admit that I had some trouble getting along with it at the beginning. With there being no speech marks, it was difficult to tell when someone was speaking at times… though only at first. After a few pages the story quickly sucked me in, and I found the lack of speech marks did nothing more than break down the barrier between the reader and the story. They’re just another signifier that you’re reading a book, and by McCarthy ditching them, it makes it easier to really be consumed by the story.

No Country for Old Men is just one of those books that reaffirms why I love novels so much. It’s the sort of book that can be enjoyed on two levels. You can just read it and enjoy it for the terrific story, or, if you want to, you can dig deeply into the characters and explore the novel’s themes. It’s both incredibly simplistic and incredibly complicated at the same time. And unlike most clever books (like a few of the ones I’ve reviewed recently) it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be clever – it doesn’t rub its cleverness in the reader’s face. It just reads as being effortlessly damn good.

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